Okay, that headline makes it sound like Curious George just decided to start exploring his sexuality. My mistake. What I’m really trying to say is that an author’s query letter might be more important than the book he or she has just finished writing. First things first (um, this is not part of the 5 Tips), don’t even think of submitting a query letter for fiction until you’ve actually finished your book. Now let’s go one step further: Don’t even think of submitting your letter until you have edited your book at least twice—preferably THREE times. While an agent might appreciate your enthusiasm if you have that query letter ready to go the exact moment you type the final word of your book and complete your first draft, the odds are almost astronomically against the possibility that you nailed every aspect of your story on the first run through.
Now, assuming that your book is ready to go, let’s look at the letter itself.
1. Explain your market – There is an old saying that you catch more flies with honey and if you’re trying to sell honey, you should probably have some idea of where the flies are. Where your book’s market lies may not be as obvious to Joe Agent as you might think. This is something I ran into with my first string of submissions for The Notice. I expected those to whom I sent my book to automatically see the wider applications of my novel. I thought it would be understood that my novel transcended its categorical historical fiction genre. Only when I explained the significance of The Bosnian War, the number of refugees living in the United States, and the book’s similarity to other popular world novels like The Kite Runner did I start to hear back from interested agents. At least one brief paragraph should state specifically to whom you are trying to sell your book and what evidence you have that such a market exists in the first place.
2. Who are you again? – Give yourself a little more credit. I went the humble route on my first line of submissions for The Notice. I mentioned that I was a teacher and that I had obtained two degrees in international relations and, of course, this was information that I found relevant while pitching The Notice—a book of international themes. While I received a slew of nice automated-form rejection letters, I came up empty-handed from every single agency to which I applied. On the second string of queries, I identified myself specially as a private school English teacher (writing cred!) and as an international affairs “expert” (hey, why not? I’m on my way to a PHD in it…). Lo and behold, I received an interested reply about a week later. DO NOT make up credentials that you can’t support—you will eventually be exposed—but do make it clear for agents why you have a “right to write”.
3. Work on your Hook – This is the most difficult part of writing your query letter and, because of that, most people will never perfect the art of the hook. If you have a hook before you ever start writing your book, FAN-TAS-TIC. It makes the process that much easier and probably shows that your idea is a solid one. Most of us won’t be that lucky, however, and will need to come up with something to draw in an agent after the writing process. You must zero in on the one aspect of your work that distinguishes it. For instance, my book The Notice (wow, I hawk my novel way too much in this blog), is “a coming of age story that revolves around a young girl making sense of a terrifying war in her homeland by sharing conversations with the ghost of an elderly Muslim woman who was murdered in her neighborhood.” That’s not exactly the same hook I’ve been using—I paraphrased it just so I could crank this out fast enough to get back to watching “House”—but it does have the core elements of my book, without giving too much away. Once you’ve dispensed with the hook, you can get down to divulging a bit more about the plot in the second paragraph of your letter.
4. Research Your Agent – Nothing works against you more than not researching your prospective agent’s catalog prior to sending your letter. Any self-respecting agency’s website will have a page that details the interests and publishing history of any given agent. It goes without saying that you should only submit YA horror to an agent who lists YA fiction and, ideally, horror in their bio as personal interests. Some agents seem to be open to anything, which might make it seem like your job just got that much easier. Don’t settle for that, friends! Find out whether or not any of the books that agent has previously helped publish match or parallel your own novel. If Joe Agent claims to take any and all fiction but shows a clear bias towards legal thrillers or vampire sagas, then maybe your dystopian story is not for him.
5. “The 4:1 Rule” – This is just a neurotic, safety-first rule that applies to my own query letter editing process. The Sean Chandler rule of thumb is to edit your query letter FOUR times for every draft of your book. If you edited your novel three times, be ready to go over your query a whopping twelve times! It might seem like overkill, but it underscores the significance of preparing the best letter possible. It’s better to err on the side of caution than submit a query letter that accidentally prevents an agent from reading your book. You might as well just email said agent a video of you drunkenly singing “Don’t Stop Believin’” in your underwear; both approaches will undoubtedly prove equally successful in selling your novel.
For more information on query letters, please consult the book “Your First Novel” available here: http://www.amazon.com/Your-First-Novel-Achieving-ebook/dp/B0033ZAVX0/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1338405702&sr=8-2 It contains by far the most helpful and detailed analysis of good query letters that I’ve seen so far. It’s also a pretty cheap purchase. If you’re young and aspiring like me, it’s definitely worth your coin!